24 April 2017

Plato on wealth and sōphrosunē

‘Isn’t it by now plain that it’s not possible to honour wealth in a city and at the same time adequately to maintain moderation among the citizens, but one or the other is necessarily neglected?’
- Plato, The Republic, 555c

Even though the ‘city in speech’ which Socrates and his interlocutors in The Republic craft for themselves is indeed an exercise in utopianism, it’s still worth considering what Plato intended to use this city for. The understanding of justice that Plato wants to point us to, is emphatically not that advocated by Cephalus, Polemarchus or Thrasymachus in the opening books of the Republic. Cephalus’ view, reflective of the ‘oligarchic man’, of justice being merely obedience to the laws and respect for private property, is instantly ridiculed by Socrates with the example of a madman with a weapon, and whether it would be just to let the madman have the weapon – his own lawful private property, after all – to do with it what he pleased. Polemarchus’ view, which reflects the ‘timocratic man’ and insists on doing good to friends and evil to enemies, is closer to the truth but still lends itself to certain dialectical antinomies (as Socrates leads Polemarchus to admit that the just man must be a thief). And Thrasymachus’ attack on Socrates, to the effect that justice consists in the will of the strong over the weak, the rulers over the ruled, the many over the one, reflects the mature ‘democratic’ and proto-‘tyrannical’ attitudes of Callicles in the Gorgias, and lends itself to the same routes of examination. (Bloom’s analysis has it that Thrasymachus represents and prefigures the Athenian jury which ultimately tried and executed Socrates.)

Thus it is left to Socrates’ fellow-travellers Adeimantus and Glaucon (Plato’s brothers, as a note of interest) to draw out how Socrates would defend and define the just, by bringing to bear the strongest possible form of Thrasymachus’ attack. To do this, Glaucon crafts a scenario – the infamous Ring of Gyges – which would allow a person to reap all the earthly rewards: sexual favours, power, prestige and renown, which are due to a just man, whilst at the same time actually taking part in the worst forms of intrigue and murder (indeed, regicide). And Adeimantus points to certain ambivalences in the nature of the universe and the personality of the gods, which arise from reading the great poets, including Homer. And this is the ground from which Socrates is forced to defend justice as such – and actually, with it, the entirety of virtue including wisdom, courage and sōphrosunē.

Cephalus has left the dialogue, and appeals to the authority of the elders no longer have any weight. Political logic has disappeared. From the point at which Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adeimantus have steered the conversation, we’re in something like Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ or Nietzsche’s wasteland, a war of all against all wherein the strongest, most ruthless and most cunning define what is and is not ‘just’. (What’s truly eerie about reading the Republic is that Plato seems to have anticipated these turns in our philosophical thought, and sought to answer them pre-emptively!) And in such a post-political wasteland Socrates must build the city anew, ‘in speech’, to find out where justice truly lies.

Socrates’ ideal city is, from the outset, a macrocosm of the soul of man ‘written in large print’, so that his interlocutors can see clearly what a well-ordered soul would look like through the lens of a well-ordered city. Thus, the ‘city in speech’ is not simply an exercise in political utopianism (though it is also that): it is an exercise in examining the soul and determining what sort of man one should become and be, regardless of which régime one lives in. In the well-ordered city each person and each class of people minds his own business and does not necessarily seek first after his own happiness and comfort, but after harmony and peace with the others; the logic which Socrates attempts to draw out of Adeimantus and Glaucon, is that the well-ordered man must also seek harmony and peace within himself. The noetic part of the soul – that part of the soul that learns and understands and reflects and humbles itself before the divine – must be allowed to rule the willing and desiring parts of the soul, and the willing and desiring parts of the soul must be reasoned with and their good sought.

As soon as that part of the soul that loves glory and demands respect is allowed to rule the man, the downward slide begins toward disordered love of wealth, toward strife within the soul, toward all the manner of depravities which Gyges indulged. That is why Socrates is so emphatic that wealth – that which is sought out of proportion by the desiring part of the soul as the medium to the ends with which it feeds itself endlessly – is an implacable enemy of sōphrosunē, that only what wealth is necessary should be allowed within the city, that it should as far as possible be shared in common (particularly among the ruling class), and that concentrations of wealth should be shunned. It is impossible for a very poor man to be proficient at his own business, and it is even more impossible for a very rich man to keep to his own business. Plato sees inequality not so much as an evil in itself, but a sure indicator of evils within the soul of the city and thus also within the souls of the citizens.

There is much, much more that can be said about the Republic, but I thought it might be worth exploring a little bit here, some of Plato’s thought on wealth and its distribution within the city.

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